Successful money and debt management is key to aging in place. If you’re a caretaker for an older adult, you have a role to play.
Many older adults resist help when it comes to budgeting their money. Learn why this happens—and how you can overcome it.
Helping your loved one create and stick to a budget is important. So is protecting your own finances. There are resources available to support you.
The ability to manage finances is an essential component of aging in place. Yet, as many caretakers know, doing so can become more and more difficult—and stressful—for loved ones who are facing the physical, cognitive, and emotional realities of growing older.
If you’ve noticed that an older adult in your life is struggling with their money and debt management, you’re not alone. And there are concrete steps you can take to help. In this article, you’ll learn:
- What prevents some seniors from using a budget
- Why it can be hard to help your loved one create and adhere to a budget
- How to overcome those obstacles
When you and your loved one work together, you can alleviate some of the anxiety you both may feel about their financial security.
What keeps a senior from budgeting their money?
Knowing how to set up and use a budget is perhaps one of the most important steps that anyone can take to gain better control over their finances. Yet many older adults face a variety of challenges that can prevent them from making and sticking to one. These include:
- Living on a fixed income. The average monthly benefit check for older adults on Social Security was $1,906 at the end of 2023.1 But in many parts of the country, this isn’t enough to cover even the most basic costs of living.2 If your loved one struggles to make ends meet, they may feel that saving money is impossible and budgeting is pointless.
- Lacking financial knowledge. According to research conducted by financial management scholar Audra Sherwood, PhD, more than 65 percent of American adults are financially illiterate.3 This knowledge gap not only creates considerable worry, but also can get in the way of asking for help. No one likes to admit that they don’t understand how money management works. And the particularly American taboo of not talking about finances compounds the problem. If your loved one doesn’t know how to use a budget, you may never be aware of it until you stumble upon an issue.
- Experiencing physical or cognitive changes. Failing eyesight can make it difficult for seniors to see numbers and do math. Arthritis can interfere with writing out and signing checks. And Alzheimer’s can lead to missed bill payments and more. The frustrations of living with age-related decline can lead some older adults to give up even trying to manage their budgets. Others may fail despite their efforts to stay on top of things. And, as with financial illiteracy, your loved one may not want to let on that they’re struggling.
Why can it be challenging for caregivers to assist older adults with budgeting?
Of many reasons, stubbornness may lead the pack. It’s easy to forget that older adults are just that—adults. And every adult values their autonomy and freedom to make their own financial decisions, even if those decisions seem like poor ones to everyone else. If your loved one resists your attempts to help manage their money, they may be reacting against losing their independence and control.
Sensitivity is key in situations like these, says Genevieve Waterman, NCOAs Director of Economic Security. “Try to put yourself in their shoes. How would you like to be treated? What assistance might you appreciate and how would you prefer that someone offer it? Empathy and compassion can go a long way.”
Another challenge: your loved one hasn’t granted you access to their bank accounts, or allowed you to discuss their income, obligations, and debts with creditors or other third parties. And you can’t build a budget without knowing what the baseline is.
Waterman suggests starting a conversation with the older adult you're caring for now, to discuss how you or someone else might help with their finances should they need it in the future. (The National Institute on Aging offers valuable advice on this kind of planning).
How can I help my loved one create and adhere to a budget?
Despite the obstacles, it is possible to do this successfully. Here are 4 tips to try right now:
1. Involve them in the process.
Securing buy-in is essential from the beginning. If the older adult you care for is cognitively fit, actively include them in decisions about their finances. Remember: it’s their money, and they get to choose how to spend it (or not). Resist the urge to impose your own will and values on their budget. Encourage a sense of ownership, and you’ll motivate your loved one to stick to it.
2. Investigate ways to stretch their dollars.
Does your loved one live on a fixed or limited income? Help eliminate any resistance to budgeting by finding ways to better make their money work for them.
Start by investigating these 10 ways that seniors can save money. Then, visit NCOA’s BenefitsCheckUp together to see what financial assistance programs they may be eligible for—including health care, prescription drugs, food, housing, utilities, transportation, and more.
3. Empower them with knowledge.
The mere idea of money budgeting can intimidate almost anyone. If your loved one lacks financial savvy, you can help educate and empower them with the basics. Share NCOA’s guide to budgeting tips for seniors, How to Budget Your Money, or use it to inform your own one-on-one discussions about the topic.
4. Be sensitive to limitations.
According to the NIA, people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia may exhibit problems with managing their finances several years before they’re diagnosed. If you’ve been working hard to help an older adult create and stick to a budget—and you’re frustrated by their inability to do it—take a step back and consider whether this is due to their stubbornness, or something else. If you suspect a cognitive issue, set up a medical evaluation (if you have the power to do so). Depending on the results, you can determine whether the person under your care will need a financial guardian moving forward.
Even if dementia isn’t a concern, keep in mind that many older adults who are otherwise motivated to stick to a budget may still struggle with the mechanics of it. If your loved one can’t write checks due to arthritis, for example, you can help them set up online payments. If they have trouble seeing, you can investigate assistive technologies.
The bottom line: Budgeting is a powerful tool for greater financial stability
Setting up a budget for an older adult won’t change their money situation overnight. But it will be a powerful tool for helping them achieve greater financial stability. In turn, this can help them stay secure and independent longer, which is essential to aging with dignity, choice, and peace of mind.
Additional help for you
Today in the U.S., more than 40 million people provide unpaid care to older adults and adults with disabilities. Many of these caregivers are women. And most also juggle work, family, and other responsibilities.
Helping your loved one manage their budget is important. So is protecting your own finances. The National Resource Center on Women and Retirement offers a wealth of advice on how to do it.
1. Social Security Administration. Effect of COLA on Average Social Security Benefits. Found on the internet at https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/colaeffect.html
2. UMass Boston’s Elder Index. Found on the internet at https://elderindex.org/elder-index (Data in the example accessed on Oct. 13, 2023).
3. Sherwood, Audra R.. Differences in Financial Literacy Across Generations (2020). Walden Dissertations and Doctoral Studies. 8984. Found on the internet at https://scholarworks.waldenu.edu/dissertations/8984